The timing of lawmakers in Florida and Louisiana couldn’t have been worse. Each group recently enacted measures to require seat belts on all school buses. In Florida’s case, the law will take effect on Jan. 1, 2001. Louisiana lawmakers gave school transportation officials a greater cushion, setting the implementation date for June 30, 2004. The reason their timing was so poor is that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is halfway through a two-year research program to develop a better system of protecting students aboard school buses. NHTSA’s final report is due next summer. It may indicate that school buses, large and small, should be outfitted with a three-point seat-belt system, much like passenger cars. Or it may recommend that the interior sidewalls be padded. Or it may determine that the status quo — compartmentalization — is still the best form of protection, more than two decades after it was devised and mandated.
No need to act now
Whatever the case, the best course of action for state lawmakers, at this point, is to wait and see. As we all know, sometimes the best action is none at all. California lawmakers should heed this counsel. They are considering a bill, AB 15, that would mandate lap-and-torso restraints on new school buses purchased on or after Jan. 1, 2002. As a Californian, I’d like to offer some advice to the politicos in Sacramento: Just watch and wait. I’m not saying, however, that if something’s broken, don’t fix it. Legislators and all public officials have an obligation to protect the public interest. They need to respond decisively to real threats to the welfare of their constituents. There’s nothing wrong with yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater — if there’s a fire. But the issue of seat belts on school buses isn’t nearly as clear cut as a three-alarm blaze at your local multiplex. In this case, there’s only smoke. Nobody knows with any certainty whether seat belts, and particularly lap belts, would increase the safety of children aboard school buses. Anyone who tells you otherwise has not studied the issue carefully. And the vast majority of people in the best position to make an educated guess — those involved in school bus transportation — believe that lap belts are not the answer. However, in Florida and Louisiana, the law now says that seat belts will be added to all new school buses in the not-so-distant future. The lawmakers — a majority of them anyway — and the governors in those states chose to ignore the advice of state pupil transportation officials and local transportation supervisors. Their advice was this: Just sit tight and let the people at NHTSA finish their study. They may determine that some type of seat-belt system should be installed on all school buses. If and when that happens, we will begin working on a plan to equip buses with the recommended restraint system.
The status quo works fine
Until then, however, let’s keep our options open. Compartmentalization has proven to be quite effective in preventing fatalities aboard school buses (an average of nine or 10 per year over the past decade). In the meantime, we could focus our efforts on improving driver and passenger training, which would go a long way toward reducing injuries and fatalities on and around school buses. The real issue here is not whether all school buses should be required to have seat belts; it’s who should be making the decisions and for what reason. Although I believe that the groups lobbying for the placement of seat belts on school buses are well meaning and sincere, I also believe that they too should be urging lawmakers to carefully monitor NHTSA’s research program — and to do nothing until it’s complete.